Rock climbing and fat biking in Yangshuo: Here’s why China’s adventure capital will break you

It’s cheap, beautiful, perfect for adrenaline junkies – and utter agony for amateurs

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The Independent Travel

My fingers feel like they’ve been sandpapered, and my thighs feel like iron bars. These are the joys of climbing the Egg, a legendary karst crag in China’s rock climbing capital of Yangshuo.

Following a spate of luxury hotel openings, this gem in southern China is creeping on to the radar: as Asia’s most adrenaline-filled adventure town and the country’s most beautiful rural hangout. 

(Banyan Tree’s riverside villas opened a couple of years ago and turbo-luxe brand Alila is due to open in an old sugar mill this year.)

I’m here to get my heart-rate going in as many different ways as possible – on an extreme, one-day, dusk-till-dawn adventure itinerary.

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The sprawling karsts of Yangshuo, on the Li River (Bernt Rostad/Flickr)

Morning: Cracking the Egg

I’m clinging to a slim shelf in the rock, having fought my way, very slowly, just 10 metres up the Egg’s 60-metre high face. I’m doing a 5.8-level climb, a tough start for a beginner. Allegedly, I’m doing “really well” – or at least my guide Aniu from local firm Blackrock Climbing says so. He’s standing below, feeding ropes through the carabiners, attached to hooks in the rock face, slowly.

I’m hoping he hasn’t noticed that I’ve already broken the first rule of rock-climbing: never grab onto the hooks to steady yourself.

Thirty years ago, the small settlement of Yangshuo in the Chinese province of Guangxi was a snoozy rice farming village – until backpackers turned up, demanding banana pancakes, jugs of Tsingtao beer and some adventure to kill time between trips to Beijing and Hong Kong.

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Attempting to climb the dastardly face of the Egg (Cathy Adams)

They would’ve hung out up the Egg, which after a punishing 45 minutes I’m still not even halfway up. I’ve been overtaken by a Russian couple, a young Australian and a Brit, all gliding up the grey limestone rock face effortlessly. They come here because it’s cheap, the rock-climbing is excellent and there’s a huge variety of climbing for most abilities. (Including mine, which is somewhere between slow beginner and – for the purposes of this assignment – adrenaline freak.)

Still, there’s good reason to take it slow. Even from an embarrassingly low height, the views across the valley are epic. Because the limestone karsts erupt from a shallow basin along the Li River, get even a few metres off the ground and you really appreciate Guangxi’s rolling rice terraces, plus the other bumpy rocks I’m supposed to be climbing, abseiling or slumped against later. They include Moon Hill (like a mossy green arch, great for abseiling down), Wine Bottle Crag and the Swiss Cheese, so named because it’s full of holes. Then I remember my body feels like a lump of lead. Aniu is probably too polite to say anything. Unsurprisingly, I never get round to climbing them.

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Moon Hill is a favourite spot for abseiling, though our writer was too destroyed to do it (Guan Tjun Tan/Facebook)

Aniu is a bit of a local legend – a North Face-sponsored climber, originally from Duyang, a town close to the Vietnamese border. He’s been climbing in Yangshuo for almost a decade, having moved here to join other likeminded adventurers. “It’s the climbing capital of Asia,” he tells me, pointing at a group of rough-hewn Americans. Rising fees in climbing havens like Yosemite and Utah are so prohibitive that adventurers are moving to China instead.

They’re not just scaling Yangshuo’s karsts, though. This new breed of adventurers is abseiling off them, zip-lining through them – or kayaking beneath them. 

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The landscape in southern China is as beautiful as it is challenging (Nomadasaurus/Facebook)

Afternoon: Kayaking and fat-biking

It’s almost lunchtime, and the Li River cuts through Yangshuo town as neatly as my oar is slicing through the serene water. The river is narrow, shallow and glass-flat, but there’s plenty going on: fishermen casting their nets, bamboo trees swinging, backpackers swishing their feet off makeshift rafts. As kayaking spots go, Yangshuo is a supremely Instagrammable one, with looming karsts and lush reeds along the riverbank. (If you’re here during a sweaty summer, find a slow-moving section, avoid the air-conditioned cruises and dive in – or if that sounds like too much effort, hire a bamboo raft and just float down it.)

A bowl of noodles later, and it’s my thighs that are getting the workout: on a mountain bike with doughnut-fat wheels. Thanks to the shallow basin that Yangshuo sits in, it’s ideal for exploring from the saddle. Rent a bike from any of the shops in town (or, if you’re staying, the Banyan Tree rents them to guests for free) and take it off-road into the rice paddies that surround the town. It’s as simple as that. 

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Writer Cathy gives her arms a rest with an afternoon of fat biking (Cathy Adams)

Or, leave Yangshuo proper to find some off-the-beaten track routes. For an easy peddle with blockbuster river views, stick close to the Li – or to amp up the pace, cycle to nearby Xianggong Hill and hike up the makeshift stairs built by an enterprising local. Just don’t do it right after coming down the Egg – although the spectacular sight at the top might just make you forget about the agonising lactic acid build-up in your legs.

Evening: Trance tunes and ‘beer fish’

By early evening, sunset – and the gaudy-but-worth-it light show that starts up when it gets dark – has lit up the karsts. On West Street in downtown Yangshuo, there’s a different kind of adventure happening: huge speakers bang out trance music as locals flip over their trestle tables to sell you your dinner. The place is rammed with young international and local climbers, fit-looking adventurers, lots of backpackers dressed in elephant-print trousers (groan), and groups of high-pitched girls with selfie sticks and Hello Kitty mobile phone cases. A lot of people say you should avoid Yangshuo town but I thought was quite fun – for one night.

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Get a taste for local dish beer fish, cooked in a brew (Filipe Fortes/Flickr)

Veer off West Street into the cutesy lanes and you’ll find street food stalls selling hot, slippery dumplings and local specialty “beer fish” – Li River fish fried with tomatoes, chilli and beer. It’s good – spicy and soupy.

Come 8.30pm, I’m unable to open bar doors or hold chopsticks – the legacy of the Egg – so have escaped to Rusty Bolt, a bike shop by day and live music boozer by night, where Yangshuo’s vertigo glitterati hangout. The only problem is: after clinging on to The Egg all morning, my arms are too wobbly to hold onto my can of Tsingtao. This town’s adventures come at a high price.

Travel essentials

Getting there

From the UK, it’s easiest to fly to either Hong Kong or Beijing and take a connecting domestic flight to Guilin. Yangshuo is about a 90-minute drive from Guilin.

Climbing there 

Blackrock Climbing (blackrockclimbing.net) takes climbers out for half-day sessions, which cost 320 yuan per person (£34). The taxi ride from your hotel to the mountain is extra.

Click here to view Asian tours and holidays, with Independent Holidays.

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